Dinosaurs were awe-inspiring creatures. That’s why we’re still fascinated by them to this day. They existed in different sizes and shapes and had varying physical features. However, when most people talk about the giant monsters of long ago, it’s usually in terms of their massive size and scary appearance. Only a few people realize that many dinosaurs had strong intellectual capacities and can be considered smart even by today’s standards. 

Movies like Jurassic Park have tried different ways to depict the possible ways the dinosaurs would have interacted with today’s world. In most theatrical representations, the savage side of these monsters has always taken the spotlight. However, on a few occasions, there have also been attempts to portray how intelligent these creatures were. 

For instance, in the 2018 instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise, the Indoraptor, a transgenic cross between Indominus rex and Velociraptor, was depicted as the smartest and most dangerous predator in the park. Velociraptors themselves also rank high among the most intelligent dinosaurs ever seen on the big screen. But as you may know, a movie is not a scientific documentary. The smartest dinosaur ever is not what Jurassic Park would have you believe. 

Ranking the Smartest Dinosaur Ever

Although they lived many millions of years ago, and it’s almost impossible to tell just how smart they were by looking at bones, scientists have developed some measures for determining the intelligence of extinct animals. This is typically done by comparing the size of the animal’s brain in proportion to its head through a technique called the Encephalization Quotient (EQ). This also measures the density of the brain in proportion to the animal’s body size.

Also, predatory animals are often considered more intelligent than their herbivorous counterparts because of their sharp hunting instincts. This is often an important factor in ranking dinosaurs based on their intelligence.

By studying the brain size in comparison to the actual size of the dinosaur and examining some of its physical attributes to determine how it might have behaved, scientists now think Troodon formosus, a relatively small dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous, was the smartest dinosaur ever. 

3D rendering of a troodon running through a forest
By using a technique called the Encephalization Quotient, scientists have determined Troodon formosus was likely the most intelligent dinosaur.

Marcin Polak / CC BY 2.0. – License

How Smart Was the Troodon?

Troodon is believed to be the smartest dinosaur ever, with an EQ of 5.8. This small coelurosaurian dinosaur (similar evolutionary group to modern birds) had a huge brain, especially considering its size, making it the smartest among dinosaurs. It had a proportionally larger brain than living reptiles, so its intelligence level might be on par with that of modern birds. 

Troodon sizes varied across locations. Those from northern areas were often much bigger than those from the south. For instance, the Troodon fossils found in Alaska were quite large. They were 12 feet long, 5 feet tall, and weighed about 175 pounds. While those that lived in southern locations were only about 7 feet long, 3 feet tall, and weighed about 50 pounds. Generally, Troodon had a higher brain-to-body ratio compared to other dinosaurs. Their brain was about the size of a golf ball. Also, they had big eyes, stereo vision, and moved at blazing fast speed. 

Some other physical features of this animal include its teeth, which were different from those of other theropods that lived around the same time. This feature is how it got its name Troodon (ancient Greek word for “wounding tooth”). It also had a sickle claw and a retractable and enlarged second-toe claw bone. The shape and size of its leg bones prove that the Troodon was a fast runner. Its binocular vision and the sickle claw on its foot prove it was a predator. 

Why Is Troodon Considered the Smartest Dinosaur Ever?

So why is Troodon ranked top on the list of smartest dinosaurs? Scientists have considered several factors relating to the dinosaur’s size and physical attributes to reach a conclusion about its intelligence. Some of these include: 

  • Bigger brain — Troodon had a much bigger brain compared to other dinosaurs of the same size, and the brain was heavy in proportion to its body and compared to the brain matter of other theropods. This dinosaur’s Encephalization Quotient (EQ) was several times higher than most dinosaurs, earning its reputation as the genius of the Cretaceous Period. 
  • Binocular vision — Troodon had larger-than-normal eyes that were set to the front instead of the sides like most other dinosaurs. This indicates that it had advanced binocular vision, which would have been very useful for capturing prey. 
  • Fast legs — It had long back legs with sharp claws on the toes and moved very quickly when hunting prey or escaping a predator. The agility to move quickly would have required a good brain for control. 
  • High sense of hearing and smell — Troodon is known to have an excellent sense of smell and good hearing. This means it had a super brain with the unique ability to process the extra information that these senses produce. 
  • Pack hunting — Scientists think Troodon may have hunted prey in packs, enabling them to take down larger animals. Doing this requires organization and cooperation, which is only seen in the most intelligent species. 
Troodon dinosaur head on white background
Troodons had teeth with serrated edges, which led to their name that means “wounding tooth.”

When and Where Did Troodon Live?

A Troodon tooth specimen found in the Judith River Formation in Montana dates back to 77 million years ago, which suggests that Troodon lived in the Campanian Age during the Late Cretaceous Period. This finding also correlates with other fossil specimens found in several other locations. They may have also lived in dark, colder climates. Their large eyes suggest that they used it to gather available light from the dark environment they lived in, a similar evolutionary strategy to the ornithopod Leaellynasaura—another big-eyed dinosaur. 

Feeding, Threats, and Predators

Troodon ate small mammals, lizards, and invertebrates. Its rotatable forearms with three-fingered hands also made it a more formidable hunter. It also had huge, forward-facing eyes with a strong vision that aided its sight and hunting, even at night. 

Unlike other theropods, it didn’t have teeth that were very strong or great for biting through flesh and bones. This is why many scientists initially considered it a plant eater. However, its highly developed senses and raptorial claw suggested that it may have preyed on smaller animals, such as snakes, fishes, birds, or herbivorous dinosaurs that it could take down quickly. 

Also, it had 122 teeth with prominent, apically oriented wounding serrations. However, these serrations had morphometric similarities to herbivorous reptiles. Based on this, many experts have suggested that the Troodon was an omnivore capable of feeding on both plant and animal diets.

Despite being a predator itself, the Troodon had to adapt to avoid other predators. The small size of this animal would have made it a target for larger carnivores from the Late Cretaceous. Spinosaurus and the famous Tyrannosaurus rex were among the greatest hunters of that period, and T. rex is known to have lived in similar locations as the Troodon

However, the Troodon may have been able to use its smartness to escape being hunted, coupled with other features such as their large eyes (with strong vision) and their blazing speed. 

Troodon may have also been threats to each other as they likely fought among themselves for food or mates. They could use their talons to fight each other and show their dominance. 

3D illustration of a troodon on a white background
Many experts have suggested that the Troodon was an omnivore capable of feeding on both plant and animal diets.

When Did the Smartest Dinosaur Die Out?

Even the most intelligent dinosaur to have ever lived was not immune to the perils of prehistoric earth. The Cretaceous Period ended about 66 million years ago with a mass extinction event that wiped out about 70% of animals on earth, including the Troodon. This extinction was probably caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. Even though the Troodon were far from the impact site, they felt the effect of the rapid change in the earth’s atmosphere. 

Similar Animals to the Troodon

Troodon may have been the most intelligent dinosaur, but it wasn’t the only one. Some other dinosaurs were also intelligent and were similar to the Troodon in this regard. 

  • Velociraptor — This dinosaur also had good vision and hunted in packs, lending credence to their intelligence. 
  • Compsognathus — They also had good senses and hunted in packs, meaning they were among the most intelligent dinosaurs. 
  • Tyrannosaurus rex — The T-Rex is often depicted in movies as a dumb savage dinosaur that could not see you unless you moved. This depiction is wrong. The T. rex had a large-sized brain compared to other giant dinosaurs. They also had good eyesight, a great sense of smell, and incredible hunting ability. These features point to a high level of intelligence. 

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